STRANGE STORIES FROM THE LITHGOW GUN FACTORY

On February 4  1908,  Australian military officials approved a site at  the coal mining town of Lithgow in New South Wales  for a small arms factory.  The fact that coal could be delivered to the site very cheaply  was an important factor in the choice.

Lithgow Small Arms Factory

Early photo of the factory.

With the outbreak of World War I  the factory became an  increasingly important (and sensitive) site. Sentries were positioned around the perimeter and at one point  they became aware of mysterious lights.  Patrols were sent out, but frustratingly, the source could never be identified.  In the end management approached the local paper and  published what we would now regard as a very politically incorrect warning;

The khaki-clad sentries have decided to shoot at the lights on their next visitation. If it is the work of practical jokers they may be sorry for their pranks, as a bullet in the neck is a difficult load to carry away.

Not everyone had confidence in the guns made at Lithgow. It was rumoured that 50% of them would not shoot straight. This gave rise to a poem, with the last verse reading;

And the young Australian soldier the enemy attacks,

Will get it where the chicken got the dirty little axe;

We’ll carve upon his monument how gallantly he died,

While his crazy Lithgow rifle lay useless by his side.

THE KNIVES ARE OUT!

As the war came to an end the factory ended up with an abundance of stock, and not  much work for  employees. We all know the saying,   ‘The devil makes work for idle hands….’   In this case the work was very interesting indeed. The first inkling about a clandestine industry came when an ultra-patriotic Melbourne storekeeper placed  this advertisement in his window;

Too much information.

The advertisement created quite a bit of interest.  Aussie  householders were more used to buying  such utensils from Great Britain.

Melbourne was considered too far away for the sets to be traced back to their illicit origins, but maybe Tasmania would have been safer.  It didn’t take much for someone to put two and two together and come up with ……The  Lithgow Small Arms Factory! It turned out that the carving sets had been made  by a syndicate  of employees with  filched bayonet steel. The wood for the handles  came from the rifles the bayonets were meant to be attached to.

Police went on a round of employees’ homes armed with search warrants. However, word had got around and not a single, gun based carving implement was discovered.

A local man was  fishing in the nearby lake at the time and pulled up what he thought must have been a weighty fish. When he realized it was a  ‘hot’ carving knife he hastily threw it back.

Investigations continued and eventually  several  men were arrested. They were fined £5 each…..and sacked.

Discharge papers from Lithgow Small Arms Factory

Discharge document for one of the guilty men. (Photo courtesy of the Small Arms Factory Museum)

The carving set pictured below was donated to the  factory’s museum relatively recently, by a lady from Bathurst. She said it had been in her family for as long as she could remember. Despite hearing many rumours about the existence of such sets it was the first ever seen by the  museum’s custodians. The pieces look sturdy  enough to last forever, so there are no doubt many more lurking about. I must say the screws in the handles have a slight hint of the amateur.

 

A three piece set. (Photo courtesy of the Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum)

 

MURDER MOST FOUL?

In the summer of 1926 the Small Arms Factory was in the news again. It appeared that a love triangle had led to murder;

 

Machine shop, Lithgow Small Arms Factory

The machine shop shortly after completion. (Photo courtesy of Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum,)

The story gained credence when local residents claimed to have heard a gunshot on the night in question. However, just as it seemed the building may have to come down there was a breakthrough.

Police  had not  been  convinced by the story and they searched the country for the two men and the woman mentioned by the prisoner.  Finally, all three were located.  The so called  ‘victim’ was brought to Parramatta Gaol to confront the  informant, who then declared he had nothing more to say.  Apparently his motive had been to have his sentence reduced for providing police with  information relating to a crime.

By the way, one of the workers  at the factory moonlighted as an athletics  coach. His name was Jim Monaghan and in 1945 he began training a  local typist by the name of Marjorie Jackson.   As a sprinter, Marjorie went on to win  two  Olympic gold medals for Australia  at Helsinki, and seven Commonwealth Games gold medals.  She became known as The Lithgow Flash.

 

Jim Monaghan ad Marjorie Jackson

Jim Monaghan and Marjorie Jackson

I highly recommend a visit to the Small Arms Factory Museum. It’s a fascinating place.  Here are the details.   My sincere thanks to custodian Donna White for  photographs and information used in this piece. Also  included is information from Tony Griffiths’ book, Lithgow Small Arms Factory and its People.

If you or your family have stories and memories of the Small Arms Factory, the museum would be delighted to hear from you.

Here is a final mystery. Dear readers, your challenge is to guess who it is.

John Howard at Lithgow Small Arms Factory

A mysterious visitor at Lithgow’s Small Arms Factory

COMMENTS ARE ALWAYS WELCOME.   DON’T FORGET TO COMPLETE THE ANTI-SPAM SUM BEFORE PRESSING ‘SUBMIT’.

UPDATE – A lot of additional information is included in the comments below, especially from custodian of the Museum, Donna White.

 

 

 

18 Comments
  1. Is this a book for sale please? My husband was the blacksmith at the factory for many years and would love to read these stories It is a total shame that the factory is not still running as it did.

    • Pauline

      The John Griffiths book might be, Judith. You could check with the museum. Your husband must have stories of his own!

    • Judith, both volumes of this book (Vol 1: 1910 to 1950 and Vol 2: 1950 to 1990) are available for sale in the Museum shop, however we only have 12 volume 1’s left. It can be ordered online or via phone as well.

      If you can get him to do it, we would love to have your husband’s stories of working in the Factory, either written or recorded. These first-hand stories are like gold to us.

      The factory is still making the current service weapons however, as you say, not “as it did” when it was owned by the Australian Government. It is now owned by the French mulinational company Thales.

      The Museum is a completely separate entity to Thales, it’s collection being owned by the people of Lithgow, and it is completely run by volunteers.

  2. In cahoots with all those entrepreneurial villains I felt justified in cheating! The mysterious visitor is John Howard, politician.
    An interesting story Pauline.

    • Pauline

      Yes, Prime Minister John Howard. Rather ironic, as it was Mr Howard who really toughened up on our gun laws after the dreadful Port Arthur massacre.

  3. A very interesting story. I lived just down the road from the factory in Ordinance Avenue back in 1977

    • Pauline

      Thanks Stuart. Were all the surrounding streets named in a similar way?

      • Hi Pauline

        Ordinance Avenue was the street that ran from the railway line down to the main gates of the factory and there are other streets around that area that were probably built around the same time as the factory that were given related names.

        There’s Martini Pde, Rifle Pde, Enfield Avenue and Bayonet Street.

        Streets behind the Small Arms Factory appear to have been named after places where Australians fought.

        There’s Amiens Streetm Lone Pine Avenue and Poziers Street (perhaps put in after WW1) and Suvla Street (Suvla Bay), Rabaul Street, Tobruk Street and Lemnos Street and beyond those there were more streets named after weapons.

        There was Vickers St and Bren St as well as Beaufort St.

        Giving streets a military themed name wasn’t restricted to Lithgow. During WWII Orange also had a small arms factory (it became the Email factory after the war) and streets around that were named Moresby, Buna and Kokoda along with Churchill and Bardia Avenues.

        • Pauline

          Thanks so much Stuart, that’s wonderful information. My great-uncle was on Lemnos before embarking for Gallipoli and the Lone Pine battle etc. I had no idea there had been a small arms factory at Orange. Naming the streets like that is such a great way to keep history alive.

          • Pauline I’m fairly sure that there was a factory in Bathurst too … there is certainly a cluster of what they called “duration cottages”.

            These are cottages that were built to last for the duration of the war and they are still there. If I remember correctly they were built for workers in whatever the facility was in Bathurst.

          • Pauline

            Thanks Stuart, I’ll check it out.

          • After the evacuation at Dunkirk the English requested that Australia send all available rifles to England. Despite working three shifts, the Lithgow SAF could not keep up with the demand and so feeder factories were erected in surrounding Central West towns. Bathurst and Orange made rifles while the Lithgow factory concentrated on the more complex machine guns. Feeder factories in Cowra, Wellington, Dubbo, Young, Parkes, Forbes, Mudgee, Portland made parts and fed them to the three major factories.

            The feeder factories only lasted for a few years, but 1945 all had closed down.
            6000 people were employed at the peak of production during WWII at Litghow with another 6000 employed at the feeder factories. People came from all over the country to work in Lithgow.

          • Pauline

            Thanks for all the info, Donna. There have been nearly 5,000 visits to this post. Hope it translates into increased visitor numbers.

  4. Regarding the rumours that the Lithgow rifles were faulty, this was politically based. We actually found a report in our archives the day after this post was posted. It was written by the Factory manager in response to the complaints from the military in Western Australia. They actually mentioned the rifles individually by serial number and most of the problems were caused by misuse or improper reassembly after cleaning.

    The Lithgow rifles were renowned for their reliability and interchangeability (very important if you break a part of your rifle in battle), Something the British didn’t achieve till years later. There were many headlines of the day praising the Lithgow rifles and saying they were as good as any in the world.

  5. Just another note.
    The carving sets were made from full bayonets, complete with their wooden grips (of the same timber as the rifles) … and ‘slightly amateur’ 🙂 screws.

    If you google “Pattern 07 bayonet” you will see the similarities. The pommel (at the end of the grips) has been cut off diagonally.

    It is almost certain that these carving sets were made at the Factory and smuggled out, so the culprits also stole working hours from the factory, as well as the bayonets!

    Just another example of the many “foreign orders” made at the Factory over the years.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Donna. Have reminded people to read all the comments.

  6. Great stories!
    Thanks for your efforts in researching it and sharing the results with us.
    Craig – aka The Gallipoli Artist

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